Book Review: North of South by Shiva Naipaul


North of South: An African Journey. London: Penguin Books, 1979. 349 pp. Travel.

I have read only one book so far from Shiva Naipaul’s truncated bibliography (he died young). North of South is a fitting showpiece of Naipaul’s talent; his easy command of the language and knack for apt and often comical imagery make for interesting and gripping reading.

Naipaul was reluctant to pen the typical travel diary. From the outset, his goal in writing the book was to capture his personal experiences prosaically, in a “montage of people, of places, of encounters seen …” The book takes us through the Eastern African countries of Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia – the title itself stems from the regions’ northern location relative to South Africa – in a little under four hundred pages, casting a critical and unabashedly cynical eye on the fruits of each country’s recent liberation from colonial rule.

A majority of the book is dedicated to his stay in Kenya, where he begins in the city of “Bright Lights,” Nairobi, and travels through the fertile Highlands and on to the Coast. Along the way, he encounters characters whom the discerning local would not fail to recognize. Naipaul does not use their real names – his descriptions nevertheless make their identity unmistakable. He paints a picture of an East African country that is a study in contradiction. Indeed, his impression of all three countries is that there is a distinct dichotomy where words and actions are concerned. Nairobi, hailed by one of the characters as “the finest city” north of Johannesburg, he calls a caricature, a distorted, unsustainable fantasy where modernity/progress and cultural identity cannot coexist. The ultimate contradistinction is one of race: black is juxtaposed with white, “native” against “settler” and neo-colonialist. In between, the “Asian,” a third wheel, seeks a position. According to Naipaul, some old attitudes – among all classes – still prevail, shined and polished to befit a new era.

His stint in Tanzania was probably his most disappointing. Prior to undertaking his trip to Africa, Naipaul wrote of his intentions to his editor, expressing his interest in Tanzania’s new system of Ujamaa. What he finds when he travels there, is that the country, like Kenya, is “swathed in words” that seem to be of no use to the poor who are the supposed recipients of the benefits of a changed system of government.

Zambia is relegated to one long chapter whose title, “Into the Void” is a summary of its entire theme. Nothing of interest seems to be happening there, according to the author. Everything, from food to labour to scholarly literature, is imported. The country is described as a vacuum of sorts, a “lunatic wilderness” that Naipaul seemed only too glad to get away from.

North of South’s critical, subjective look at post-colonial Eastern Africa may serve as an aid to historians, urbanists, and sociologists. Even tourists would benefit from its stories.  However, while the book has many good qualities (not least of which is the quality of its writing) it is riddled with generalisations about Africa that are untruths, at least where the entire continent is concerned. Naipaul seems to equate the three individual nations with the whole of Africa. We can be forgiving, though: political correctness did not come into vogue until much later. Some readers might be put off by a few scattered sexual references that might be deemed crude and unnecessary.

For a first-time book on travel, Naipaul seems to have hit the mark. Historical facts are combined with witty, humorous and often cynical descriptions of three nations in the midst of a rebirth. I conclude with some memorable (and quite polemical) quotes:

“In a place like this, you can get away with murder if you know the right people. Money talks in this country.” – Stan, the American, speaking of Nairobi.

“The only thing to do with Africans is give them a nice chair, give them a nice-sounding title to go with it and put them where they can do least harm.” – The foreign entrepreneur in Nairobi.

“Words … words … words. Africa is swathed in words.” – The author.

“If you learn how to think black, there’s a killing to be made in this country.” – Eric, the Englishman in Kenya.

“Almost instinctively, ‘racial harmony’ is assumed to be an exclusively Black-and-White love affair.” – The author, in reference to the marginalisation of Kenyan’s Asian population.

“It is a thoroughly African piece of work, veering as it does between realism and fantasy, between piety and tyranny.” – The author, in reference to the Arusha Declaration.

“Those people have lost their innocence.” – Willi, the foreigner and hotel owner in Dar-es-Salaam, speaking of the locals.

“A dialogue is not a disturbance.” – Ndugu Mussa, Dar-es-Salaam.

“Marxism, like Christianity before it, has been reduced to caricature in Africa.” – The author.

“Black and white deserved each other … both were rotten to the core … Black Africa, with its gimcrack tyrannies, its Field Marshals and Emperors, its false philosophies, its fabricated statehoods, returns to Europe its own features, but grotesquely caricatured …” – The author.

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